Understanding “Insurance”

When we find ourselves having to share that we have lost someone we deeply loved, the responses are varied. Most are not helpful, because the idea of loss is so uncomfortable.  But, some are right down hurtful. Yet, what I’ve come do understand is that most just don’t know what to say, so they say anything that comes to mind at the time. This at times may sound like a blame game. For example, I’ve heard responses, both directly to me as well as said and related to me, such as:

  • Well, my husband takes care of himself, so that probably won’t happen to him.
  • I work out and keep my weight down, so I won’t have heart problems.
  • I have kids who could give me a kidney, so I’ll be ok.
  • We had the COVID  shot, so that won’t happen to us.

I could go on, but I think this shows the essence of what I mean.  The main point that I want to express is that people really don’t mean to be hurtful when they say these things.  They don’t mean to be playing the blame game, even though it definitely feels that way at the time.  What they are doing is what I call “insurance”.  We’re all so afraid of death, or worse – being left alone by death – that we tell ourselves all kinds of things on a subconscious level.  Some people simply let these subconscious thoughts out when faced with a situation too close to home, as it were.

First, try not to take it personally.  They are simply attempting to insure that they won’t suffer the same fate.  We really can’t do that, but we want so badly to be in control of our own lives that we attempt to even control our own fate.  Most of the time, we aren’t really aware of this behavior.  So, this is definitely an occasion of speaking without thinking, or at least conscious thought. 

Second, try to give grace.  When I first heard these things, I will admit that I was irritated.  But, then I thought back to before I was here on this journey.  I probably said things that sounded just as ridiculous, simply because I didn’t  know.  People can never truly understand a stage or a journey until it happens to them.   

When we find ourselves having to share that we have lost someone we deeply loved, the responses are varied. Most are not helpful, but some are right down hurtful. What I’ve come do understand is that most just don’t know what to say, so they say anything that comes to mind at the time. This at times may sound like a blame game. For example, I’ve heard responses such as: Well, my husband takes care of himself, so that probably won’t happen to him.”

Our Love Story

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As part of my healing, I am writing our love story. I’m writing it out in my own handwriting, so that our grandchildren will have both the story and my handwriting as a memory. But, I have decided to share it here as well. I thought it might help others through the commitment that is marriage as well as grief.

As I was writing, I noticed that I was writing to him. As the reader of this blog, I felt that you should know the voice so that it would make better sense.

Our love story officially began on June 15, 1982. A few days before, I was sitting with Bob’s brother Jim and his girlfriend at the time and my sister Kim and her boyfriend at the time. Jim’s girlfriend and Kim’s boyfriend happened to be brother and sister, so we were at their house just hanging out. I was lamenting that I was the only one not coupled up. Jim suggested that I go out on a blind date with his brother as he was on recruit duty for the NAVY and was in town. Jim had talked about him so glowingly that it didn’t take much encouragement. (Bob had made sure the younger two, Jim and his little sister, had everything that he didn’t have in high school – class rings, money to go to prom, etc. I so admired his generosity from the beginning. He was so Godly!) When Jim showed me your official NAVY picture, I was excited to meet the handsome man in the photo.

You arrived promptly at 6:00 and knocked on the door yourself. I thought it was pretty confident that you didn’t send Jim to the door or even have him walk up with you. I was still getting ready, so Kim answered the door with Mom following to meet you as well. You handled that with the grace that I soon learned was one of your greatest strengths. You were such a people person!

Once I came up (about five minutes later), you walked me out to your Honda Accord. You opened my door and made sure I was safe, then went around to the driver’s seat. We were then on our way to the Huntington Mall to watch Rocky III. On our way, I noticed some pictures laying on the console in the middle of our seats. They were of you working in the Data Center on the ship, but computers were brand new (Remember this is 1982) so I had never seen a Data Center. I asked, “So what is it you do?” You politely explained computers and computer storage.

Then, we were at the mall….

My Popeye

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Bob had just come off a Mediterranean cruise when I met him. While they were traveling around the world to 36 countries on the USS Saipan, he didn’t have much to do in his spare time than work out. So, he was quite toned. Being a Sailor, I decided that I had my own Popeye. So, naturally, that made me Olive Oyl.

My 18 year old self was so proud to be his girl. He was the older, very handsome man in the NAVY. And, as the years passed, I became even more proud to be his wife. He genuinely cared for people. I can only hope to live up to the woman he saw in me.

He found small rubber figures of our namesakes at an Arcade while we were dating, and they now sit on my desk. These small reminders of our wonderful love story is what gets me through my days at present. And, that’s what early grief feels like. Each day finished is an accomplishment. We need to celebrate those small victories.

To help me heal and to get through these days, I have decided to journal our life’s journey in a “sub-blog” titled Our Love Story. I often counsel others, especially those going through difficult times in relationships, to remember the good times. And, I also counsel those going through difficulty to journal their days. I truly believe in the act of writing it down as a healing process. So, this blog will combine the recording of good times with getting through these difficult times. Please join me in the “sub-blog” at https://counselingtoday.com/lovestory.

Love to My Valentine in Heaven

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This was my first valentines without that amazing man. To help my heart, I read back through all those love letters from our dating days. You may remember that he was in the NAVY when we met, so we had a long distance romance for most of the year that we dated. Those letters are now priceless! He wrote in a letter dated August 14, 1982:

My Dearest Susan,

I miss you so much. I’m just not complete without you. I don’t know why the Lord would have us so far apart but I’m sure he will help us make it through this most difficult time in our lives. I don’t want you to ever be unsure of my love for you. Yours Forever, Bob

It was so interesting to read those words 38 years later to find that they are so appropriate for what I am going through now. I miss him with every fiber within me and am definitely not complete without him, but trust that he is walking the streets with Jesus and happy. I have faith that both my Lord and Bob will help me make it this most difficult time in my life.

And, I include Bob because I know he is looking down on me from Heaven. He promised he would. His last words were, “Dave, you take care of your Mom. Suz, you take care of Dave. Tony and Lauren will take care of each other and our kids. And, I’ll look down and take care of everybody.” And, I trust that because 2 Corinthians 5:8 tells us that: “The same person who becomes absent from his or her body becomes present with the Lord.” So, even though I miss him terribly, I know that he is happy in Heaven.

Even more, I can’t imagine the glorious body he is now – no pain at all. I Corinthians 6:3a says, “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” I can’t imagine just being with the angels, much less being higher. So, while it’s more than depressing to miss him so much, I try to remember God’s promises. And, I will be with him again; this is just a pause.

A wonderful Godly friend, who lost her first husband even much earlier than I, reminded me very soon after Bob moved to heaven that he just said, “Good night.” Soon, we will get to say, “Good morning.” 

But, We Will Survive

Continuing the analogy of the tree, we will survive! Just as this tree was not stopped by the piano in its way, we will move forward – whether we want to or not. And, in early grief, there are days where it’s work simply to get through the day. But, it’s important that we put the work in – for ourselves and for those that love us.

This is an important image for me as I work through this grief on Day 111 (and our daughter’s 32nd birthday). Yes, I still count the days. I know there will come a day when I will move to counting months, then years. The loss will always be with me. I will always miss him, but life will push forward – just as the life in this tree pushed through the piano. Will the weight of grief be as heavy as this piano? You bet ya! But, life gives us choices. We can work to walk alongside the grief, just as this piano sits alongside this tree creating a beautiful image of the trials of life. Or, we can allow the grief to swallow us or tamp out our life. My hope for you is that you choose to live, to walk alongside the grief.

But, enough with the imagery, what are the skills to survive? It’s important to be with those going through the trials and tribulations of grief – to show up. But, what can we actually DO to help? First, say something. A colleague at work texted about a work question, but first said, “I think of you often, but don’t reach out because I don’t know what to say.” You don’t have to know. Just that you’re trying is enough. Please don’t pull away out of fear of saying something wrong.

In an article for The Guardian, writer Giles Fraser calls this “a double loneliness” – on top of the loss of someone they love, the griever loses the connection and alliance of the people around them (Fraser, 2016). For fear of making things worse, people go silent just when we need them most (Devine, 2017).

As a friend or counselor, you are not expected to be perfect. It’s perfectly ok to lead a conversation with, “I don’t know what to say.” Most don’t. This is a difficult and awful time, but we do need to be there. Admitting you’re uncomfortable allows you to at least be there and say something. That’s the real gift – Companionship!

If you’re not sure what to say, ask! It’s always been confusing to me why we think asking what to say is wrong. It reminds me of the cultural connection. If I don’t know someone else’s culture, it’s respectful of me to find out – to ask them – rather than do the wrong thing. This is much like that. Your friend or client is walking a path – a culture – that you may not have walked. Err on the side of being present. Your effort really is noticed and appreciated (Devine, 2017).

References

Fraser, G. (April 27, 2016). The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice. On Being. Retrieved from onbeing.org/blog/the-gift-of-presence-the-perils-of-advice/.

Devine, M. (2017). It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. (ISBN: 97871622039074)

We’re not perfect!

Grief is messy and humans are messy. We need to accept that going through loss is going to be messy. As you sit with your client or friend in this pause that is new grief, the best thing to do is to admit that there’s nothing that you can do to “fix it”, but you are here and you care for them. But, we’re the counselor; we’re expected to know what to do. Yes, we’ve been taught all those words of comfort, but they don’t fit right now. In early grief, nothing you can do or say is going to be right. It’s PAINFUL! We can’t heal someone’s pain by taking it away from them. It is much more useful and kind to acknowledge the pain.

It is relief for both you and your friend or client to tell and hear the truth. This stinks and it’s going to for a while. It’s analogous to a wound in the body. We can take medicine, wear a cast, etc. But, the body takes time to heal. And, usually as we heal, the body spits out messy things such as pus, blood, etc. To expect that mental pain would do anything less is ignoring the pain. We need to allow that same messy healing for the mental anguish of grief, especially out of order grief. (Worden calls this complicated grief, but isn’t all grief complicated?)

Carrying this analogy even further, I’m reminded of the tree. It doesn’t really even heal the wound. When a tree is wounded, the injured tissue is not repaired and does not heal. Trees do not heal; they seal. If we look at an old wound, we will notice that it does not “heal” from the inside out, but eventually the tree covers the opening by forming specialized “callus” tissue around the edges of the wound. That’s how those holes that we call “knots” are formed.

And, the tree continues to grow even with the wound. In early grief, we’re still part of the wound. We haven’t moved on to actual healing. That will take time. And, it will take even more time and work to form the callus around the wound that will allow for the tree to begin to focus on growth again. Arborists advise that, rather than seal out infection, wound dressings often seal in moisture and decay. In most cases, it is best to simply let wounds seal on their own. We can carry this lesson to ourselves. It’s best not to even attempt to fix the wound, but to allow your friend or client to sit with their grief and learn from it. These are high-level “soft” skills and not easy to practice as it’s human nature to want to fix something that appears broken. But, the main skills can be expressed as simple counseling: (1) Be truly present, (2) Listen attentively, and (3) Provide Unconditional Positive Regard. The biggest lesson: Don’t fix!

Grieving people would much rather have you stumble through your support than have you confidently assert that things are not as bad as they seem. Please, for all that’s holy, don’t remind them how strong they are! They don’t feel strong at this moment. We need to let the pain exist so that our friend or client feels safe enough to say, “This hurts.” As a support person, companionship inside what hurts is what is asked of you. By not offering solutions for what cannot be fixed, you can make things better, even when you can’t make them right. (Devine, 2017)

References

Devine, M. (2017). It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. (ISBN: 97871622039074)

Tippy, Tippy Toes

We say all kinds of things to attempt to put meaning to those hard to say things: I love you … to the moon and back; this much (with outstretched arms); to infinity and beyond, etc. I always told Bob that I loved him from the top of my head to my tippy, tippy toes. What that meant to us was all of me. With a love that intense, it is of course painful to say good bye.

So, how do we comfort someone going through such an intense loss. As mentioned in the last blog, we need to resist the urge to try to fix it or make it right. But, that is so difficult. It’s human nature to want to comfort someone when they are in pain. We want to “make it better” as a band-aid does for a child. But, when one is pain, those words of comfort seem patronizing, much like that band-aid. As a child, we thought it was a cure all. Yet, as an adult, we know better.

We can’t remove the urge to want to bring comfort, but we need to try not to act on it. Pause before you offer any kind of support. In that pause, think long and hard what the best course of action truly is. Acknowledgement of the reality of pain is usually a far better response than trying to fix it (Devine, 2017). Just sitting with someone going through the pain of grief is usually what is needed most. More frequently than not, they just need to be heard. They need the reality of the pure and utter mess of a situation that this is validated and mirrored back. And, most of the time, people want to talk about the loss. Grief is uncomfortable, so most people skirt around it. But, we need to push past our own comfort zone for the sake of our friend or client in pain.

The way to truly be helpful to someone in pain, especially at the beginning of loss, is to let them have their pain. Let them share the reality of how much this hurts, how hard this is, without jumping in to clean it up, make it smaller, or make it go away (Devine, 2017). That pause between the urge or impulse to help and taking action lets you come to the pain with skill, and with love. That pause lets you remember that your role is that of witness, not problem solver (Devine, 2017).

And, that’s where I am personally on day 90 of the loss of my amazing husband. And, most remain in this pause – just sitting with the grief to allow respect for the loss for quite some time. Those who’ve walked this journey before me tell me it’s usually about a year. So, remember that just being there is the best way to “fix it” for now. You don’t need to say or do the “right thing”; you just need to be there.

References

Devine, M. (2017). It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. (ISBN: 97871622039074)

Supporting the Walk

Because I hope to help others understand the supporting of grief a little better through my experience, I’m going to focus a little bit on being with someone while they’re grieving. It’s incredibly difficult! Although we as a culture fail to support grieving people appropriately, it’s important to applaud your wanting to be supportive. By wanting to do the big, deep, heavy, hard work of loving someone inside their pain, you are doing a wonderful service!

Yet, to truly be supportive, we need a new image of what grief support really is. Devine writes:

When a bone is broken, it needs a supportive case around it to help it heal. It needs a supportive case around it to help it heal. It needs external support so it can go about the intricate complex, difficult process of growing itself back together. Your task is to be part of that case for your broken friend. Not to do the actual mending. Not to offer pep talks to the broken places about how they’re going to be great again. Not to offer suggestions about the bone might go about becoming whole. Your task is to simply be there. Wrap yourself around what is broken. Your job… is to bear witness to something beautiful and terrible – and to resist the very human urge to fix it or make it right.

We’re all so uncomfortable with grief that we tend to want to fix it so that we don’t have to endure it. Someone going through grief doesn’t have that luxury. The grief must be endured in order to heal. To ignore it would be analogous to ignoring a physical illness. We wouldn’t ignore the broken bone, the burst appendix, the heart arrhythmia, etc. It takes time and support for physical healing just as it takes time and support for emotional healing. We need to allow that!

The biggest thing to remember today is to resist the urge to make it better. We need to notice that urge or impulse, then don’t act on it. Pause before you offer support. We will discuss what to do in that pause as we continue the support and walk through each week.

References

Devine, M. (2017). It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. (ISBN: 97871622039074)

Walking Alongside Grief

If I don’t manage to spread any other message through my sharing than this one, then I will feel that I have accomplished my goal. It is such a misunderstanding that we “accept” loss or “get through” it. We instead learn to carry our pain a little lighter as we walk alongside it.

That is the primary purpose for this blog: to help me walk alongside the grief for the most amazing man that ever walked this earth. I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “One of the most beautiful compensations of this life is that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

As a counselor educator, I began this blog to help other counselors. Yet, in the midst, I went through this life changing event. And, pain, just as any feeling, needs expression. As Megan Devine so eloquently expresses, “the human mind naturally goes to creative expression; it’s the way we’re built. We are storytelling creatures.” It’s not that writing, or any creative activity, is healing in and of itself. I don’t believe by any stretch of the imagination that creating something out of grief makes it a “fair trade” or even that it will move me out of the fog at a faster rate. What I do believe is that writing it down will help me to make sense of the world, especially now when everything that’s happened seems to make no sense.

So, I began with the very personal story that brought us to where we are. And, yes, I will always use the “royal” we. One does not partner with another for over 38 years without carrying that soul for all eternity. I continue to wear the “married ring” as my granddaughter affectionately termed it many years ago. I will be his wife forever. Death does not part us. It simply changes the relationship. Writing allows that connection to continue. The stories are a continuation of love.

References

Devine, M. (2017). It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. (ISBN: 97871622039074)

Anticipatory Loss

Anticipatory loss is defined as grief that is felt in anticipation of someone’s death. He kept telling me that he was getting weaker, but I just couldn’t hear it. He would talk about the finances and tell me how he had prepared for us in retirement and was concerned that it would now just be me, so I needed to listen. He finally realized that I needed to remain hopeful and made a spreadsheet, a trademark of his. The family joked about all of his planning spreadsheets. We were alike in that way. I always had my manila folder on vacations and everything had a place in our home.

I include this aspect of the fight in the blog as a warning to any going through this journey or helping others through it. It it not actually denial to need to remain hopeful. It is a natural defense mechanism. Yet, it did cost us time as I was angry at the disease and didn’t want to realize how sick he was.

I continued to fight the disease and didn’t treasure the time we had together at the end as I would have liked. Yet, knowing grief as I do, I realize that the mind goes through guilt as part of the healing. I believe that I would have regrets even if everything was perfect. Bob knew me so well and tried to prepare me for that. He even said, “I don’t want you to have regrets.” He told me time and time again that he was a blessed man, because he had a wonderful family and wonderful career. I feel so blessed, because he truly believed that both of those were because of me. He would tell the children that his career wouldn’t be what it was without “Mom’s foot in his butt”. He wasn’t a silver tongue devil, but he was honest to a fault.

So, whether you recognize anticipatory loss when it’s happening or not, it’s important that you recognize it at some point so that it can be addressed. It is so important to sit with all types of grief for a moment so that it can sink in and allow healing. The idea of “getting through” grief is a misnomer. We learn to walk alongside it.

More on that next week.